The story of a collaborative effort to help an endangered turtle species in the Gorge, told by people who help make it happen.On Sept. 10, 2019, in front of a small but appreciative audience on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, 16 young western pond turtles were released into ponds at Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust's Turtle Haven preserve, a 64-acre area considered by wildlife biologists to be prime western pond turtle habitat. Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust, created in 2005, was recently awarded its inaugural accreditation by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission.
This was the first-ever turtle release at Turtle Haven. It was the result of Friends joining an ongoing collaboration between Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Oregon Zoo to conserve this turtle species, currently listed as endangered in Washington state and in review for being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Below, in remarks from the turtle release event, representatives from all four collaborating entities talk about what it took to get to this point. The remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
All photos by Vince Ready, Lasting Light Photography.
Establishing western pond turtle protectionStefanie Bergh, wildlife biologist, Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW): In Washington state we have two native freshwater turtles: the western painted turtle that many of you have probably seen, and the western pond turtle. In the 1980s and early 1990s our agency went around looking for western pond turtles in Washington, and we only came up with two sites in the state where there were actual populations of turtles. One of those is on Forest Service land east of Turtle Haven and one of them is here (Turtle Haven). That's why this really is a special place as far as the western pond turtle is concerned.
Brett Carré, fish and wildlife biologist, U.S. Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area unit: The Gorge National Scenic Area was created in 1986 and at that time we a little plot of land near here, which we call Collins Ponds. The reason the ponds are there is that Collins Mountain slid; the slide is still active. When it slides, it's jumbling up the ground, creating a lot of this habitat, these ponds here. Both my predecessor and Stefanie's at WDFW said, "We've got these pond turtles here, we should do something about that."
And so, little by little, the Scenic Area unit started acquiring more properties around that initial spot. And so it is wonderful that Friends of the Columbia Gorge acquired this adjacent property, because now this turtle population is going to really, really do well. Because unlike painted turtles that kind of stay in the ponds, pond turtles like to move around.
Bergh: Throughout the years we have worked to establish more populations in Washington. Now there are six sites total in the State of Washington and four of them are in the Columbia River Gorge. Two of them are in the South Puget Sound area. And we could not have reestablished those populations without the Head-Starting Program. How that program came to be is that we took eggs and small turtles out of the wild and we brought them to both the Oregon Zoo and the Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle) where they captive-reared them. The turtles grew big enough to escape predation, mainly from bullfrogs, and had a higher survival rate and a higher hatch rate for the eggs. So that was key in boosting their populations and also re-establishing and reintroducing those populations.
To date, we have released 1,518 head-start turtles over these four sites in the Columbia River Gorge in the past 29 years, so it's been a very successful program. We've gone from two populations here to four and we see that we can do re-introductions now at a place like this because it's owned by Friends of the Gorge Land Trust.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust gets involved
Sara Woods, land trust stewardship coordinator, Friends of the Columbia Gorge: Our land trust bought this property a few years ago through our land campaign, Preserve the Wonder, where we acquired 470 acres throughout the National Scenic Area. Sixty-four of those acres are here at Turtle Haven. One of the driving factors, of course, of the purchase was the turtles themselves and we knew that this was turtle habitat. Turtles are on adjacent Forest Service land and that really was the motivating point to make this purchase and to have more habitat for turtles.
This site is not exactly pristine at this time. You can see that there's a home here and outbuildings. This was the home site of a family for many years, and Friends since the purchase has been working slowly to clean it up and get it back to more of a natural state. But it's a lot of work and we're getting there. We do have caretakers that live here onsite and help manage the site. So that'll happen, but not right away, at least for the home.
Aside from taking the buildings down, we do plan to do more restoration work, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The majority of that work is controlling invasives (plants and animal species). As you can see, there's lots of Himalayan blackberry here. And so we'll work a lot on that over the next five years, removing the blackberry as well as replanting it with native species. This is important because western pond turtles use the upland habitat for their nesting sites. And also, the Himalayan blackberry could inhibit movement between ponds. In some locations, it certainly is blocking off a pathway for their movement.
Habitat loss and predation
Bergh: What are the reasons for the decline in the western pond turtle population in Washington? The first one is loss of wetlands. When you were driving out here today you probably drove on I-84 or WA SR-14 and you saw the railroads. Historically the river was lined with nice wetlands and ponds and those were probably connected and now they're not (due to the construction of human infrastructure). Other reasons are upland habitat loss, replaced by houses, towns. And there's invasive species: Non-native vegetation, and also non-native predators, specifically bullfrogs.
Woods: We recently received an important Partners for Fish & Wildlife Grant from U.S. Fish & Wildlife that will help us do our work at Turtle Haven. In addition to removing the Himalayan blackberry, we'll also continue to control bullfrogs. We have a non-native bullfrog issue here at Turtle Haven, as many ponds do in the Western United States and bullfrogs actually eat turtle hatchlings. So we've been working to remove egg masses, as well as doing adult culling.
Bergh: Hatchlings are just really easy prey for bullfrogs. They come out of their nests on land, walking toward the pond, and get eaten by bullfrogs along the way. Or if they make it to the pond, they're not super good at swimming that first year that they're out in the pond. They kind of float around like a bobber and they're really easy for bullfrogs to take.
On the (Forest Service) site that's east of here, between 2015 and 2019 at that site we removed 2,492 bullfrogs. That's everything from adult bullfrogs to tadpoles, and at that site we are now seeing tons of tiny turtles. So without bullfrogs, they're able to reproduce. The turtles can grow and not get eaten. It's been absolutely amazing. That is what we want to see.
We started the same bullfrog culling program at Turtle Haven last year, and we've had a couple of different people working on it. This year the caretaker here did an amazing job and between last year and this year at this site and on the forest service property next door, they removed 3,274 bullfrogs. It's a long process, a really long process, so it's important that we don't just do it for a couple years and then stop because the bullfrogs will re-invade and one reason is because a female bullfrog, she lays what's called an egg mass, which can carry 20,000 eggs.
How "head-starting" works for western pond turtles
Shelly Pettit, senior keeper for reptiles and amphibians, Oregon Zoo: I've been at the zoo for six years. Turtle release day is one of my favorite days of the year. My other favorite day is turtle hatchling "get day," when they get to come back to the zoo. I get hatchlings every year. I have a great team of people that I get to work with.
If you visit the zoo, we do a keeper chat at 10:45 every morning to tell people about western pond turtles in our program. The gist of that keeper chat is how we bring them in. We keep them safe in the lab, so we give them summer conditions year round. It's nice and warm. They get 12 hours of sunlight to bask in. They get a wonderful nutritious diet every day that grows them big and healthy. They're basically looked after and cared for until they're big enough to fend for themselves out here in the wild.
They've actually been spending the past two weeks before the release, maybe a little bit more, outside. We do an outdoor acclimation because it's not really nice to go from 80-degree water and 12 hours of sunlight to actual Oregon weather. We put them outside and they don't get fed as much as they normally would. Then this morning, I picked everybody up and we brought them here for the turtle release.
The mysterious danger to the western pond turtle comeback: Shell disease
Bergh: Another challenge for our turtles right now is that they have a novel disease, which we're calling "shell disease." It's truly unfortunate because we've done all this great work in terms of head-starting and establishing new populations. We've done a lot of habitat management and bullfrog removal, and now the turtles are dealing with shell disease and we don't know exactly what causes it. We know that there is a fungus associated with it. We don't know yet if there are other pathogens. We don't know why or where this fungus is coming from and why it's doing what it's doing, so we're still doing a lot of work on that and we have some partners in that work, too.
The research project that we're doing right now at the site to the east of Turtle Haven is looking at how shell disease might affect reproduction. Basically the fungus invades and the shells get lesions. They get holes in them. It's not good.
We take these little radio transmitters and attach them to the shells and we track the females during the spring. Every day we go out there and track them to see if they've left the pond. If they leave the pond, we'll go and follow them to where, hopefully, they'll start taking a nap. They'll lay their eggs in that nest, cover it up. We'll mark it and go back there and dig it up, count how many eggs they laid, and put it back. And then in the fall we'll go back and excavate the nest again and we'll look at how many of those eggs hatched. And so that's what we did last fall, and that's where these turtles came from.
Shelly from the zoo came out and helped us dig up the nest and we gave her some eggs and some really tiny turtles. She brought them back to the zoo and has been taking care of them since then, so they've been away from their natural environment for almost a year. We're looking at the hatch rates: Is the hatch rate different with a sick turtle compared to a healthy turtle? This is only the second year of the study, so we're hoping to do that again next year and learn more about how shell disease might affect reproduction.
The importance of collaboration
Woods: This partnership is critical for all of us to come together. We all have our own areas of expertise and abilities. Friends is coming in late to the game; these partnerships had already been established. Friends' biggest asset is that we're able to purchase land pretty quickly, opposed to, say, a federal agency. Fish & Wildlife has wildlife management expertise, the Zoo has their turtle-rearing expertise, and of course the Forest Service is our neighbor in the Gorge and we're constantly coordinating on management efforts. All these parts are so critical. It's so hard to do it on your own.
Bergh: To have this property in the ownership of Friends of the Gorge Land Trust who want to manage it to benefit the turtles and other wildlife is huge. We're very grateful for all of their efforts and, like Sara mentioned, they just won a really big grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. That program helps private land owners do conservation work on their land, and so that's exactly what they're about to do in the next five years. So that is just really, really exciting and we're so grateful.
Carré: Conservation works when you have collaboration, when you have partnerships. It's really hard to do everything just as a silo. When you start working with other agencies and groups, that's when things start jelling, money comes, can be shared, duties can be shared, and work gets accomplished. And this turtle collaboration has been amazing.
Things you can do to help
Bergh: Okay, you're here listening about what we're doing. What can you all do to help turtles? Well, there's a bunch of different things that you can do. One thing is volunteering. So you have some organizations here that you could possibly volunteer with. I'm sure Friends would love some more volunteers to help do land stewardship activities. And another thing you can do is simply just go to the zoo. The money that you spend visiting the zoo, part of that money goes directly to this program to help western pond turtles and other conservation programs.
Lastly, you can use the knowledge that you just learned. Educate other people about western pond turtles. What are they? Why are they important? You can talk about your backyard, maybe you have a wetland or a pond in your backyard and how important it is to protect that area. Knowing about the painted turtles or other species you have back there. Non-native bullfrogs - a lot of people don't know how devastating bullfrogs can be. Or even other turtle species. We don't have that problem so much here but they definitely do in the Willamette Valley with red-eared sliders. A lot of people who get a turtle as a pet, they get a red-eared slider, and they don't realize how long it lives and then they think, "Well, I can just probably put it in my pond back here and it'll be fine." Well unfortunately, those turtles can compete with our native species of turtles.
Just educating people about turtles in general and habitat is a great thing to do.